KERCH, Crimea (Reuters) – Russia began moving three captured Ukrainian navy ships on Sunday after a Russian newspaper reported Moscow would return them to Ukraine ahead of a four-way summit on eastern Ukraine next month, a Reuters reporter said.
The reporter in Crimea, which Russia annexed from Ukraine in 2014, saw tug boats pulling the three vessels through the Kerch Strait toward the Black Sea where they could potentially travel onwards toward Ukraine.
Russia seized the ships off the coast of Crimea in November last year after opening fire on them and wounding several sailors. Moscow said the ships – two small Ukrainian armored artillery vessels and a tug boat – had illegally entered its territorial waters. Kiev denied that.
Russia returned the sailors who had been on board the ships to Ukraine in September as part of a prisoner exchange deal.
Russia’s Conversant newspaper reported on Saturday that Moscow had decided to return the ships to Ukraine and that they would be towed into the Black Sea by Russian tug boats and handed over to three Ukrainian tug boats.
The move is likely to be seen as a confidence-building measure ahead of a planned summit on Ukraine next month.
The leaders of France, Germany, Russia and Ukraine will meet in Paris on Dec. 9 in an attempt to advance efforts for a peaceful resolution to the conflict in eastern Ukraine, the French presidency said on Friday.
Various Russian media outlets have reported that the ships will be returned to Ukraine without their guns and documentation.
Over 13,000 people have been killed in the more than five-year-old conflict in east Ukraine between pro-Russian separatists and Ukrainian government forces.
Relations between Ukraine and Russia collapsed following Moscow’s annexation of the Crimean peninsula, which prompted Western sanctions. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy won a landslide election victory in April promising to end the simmering conflict.
Reporting by Reuters reporter in Crimea and Andrey Kuzmin in Moscow; Editing by Andrew Osborn